Hahei

Hahei

My mom is from, as the locals say, “Down Under”. While I was growing up, my family and I used to go to Australia to visit my relatives and explore! I am pretty sure those trips were the ones on which I got bitten by the travel bug!  My husband and I have been together for a little over 4 years and he still had not been to see and meet my heritage so, when the opportunity came up in May for some time to get away, we hopped on it!

While I’ve been to Australia a handful of times, I have never been to New Zealand. I wanted to make this trip somewhat new for both of us, so we planned to do a week in New Zealand and a week in Sydney. I figured a week in each would be plenty of time and bought the tickets – little did I know, just a week in NZ is pushing it! The best way to explore New Zealand is to do a giant road trip of either the North or South Islands (or both!). You need a solid few weeks to do all of the attractions in both. Knowing we were going to be jet-lagged upon arrival and we only had 6 full days in NZ, we opted to do a route around the North Island.

We flew out of Houston on Air New Zealand. While our check-in guy told us that our big plane was swapped with a smaller one last-minute, making my 6’2 husband a little nervous for leg space, we ended up scoring the airplane jackpot with an entire row to ourselves! We slept most of the 15 hour flight and I caught up on 4 different movies. While we were delayed about an hour and landed around 7:30 AM in Auckland, customs was a breeze and we were on the shuttle to our rental car in no time.

While I looked into getting a camper van for the trip, the rental, gas, and camp site fees were actually a few hundred dollars more than booking the hotels I looked into. Granted, I was looking at vans with toilets so they were more expensive than the just-bed versions, but still! We ended up going to hotel route and renting a tiny little, beat up Nissan Tilda to scoot us around. It was perfect on the narrow roads and already had so many marks on it we were scratch-stress free. Not only that, but I requested a car with a trunk instead of a hatchback so we could have our luggage in the car while we were in between hotels without anyone knowing (just in case).

Our first stop on our road trip was Hot Water Beach in Hahei. We had about a 2.5 hour drive from Auckland to the coast. The drive was absolutely beautiful with so many hills, sheep and cows, and immensely thick brush, but it was all hard to see considering my eyes were on the windy roads and I was focused on driving on the wrong side of the road!

We pulled up to the Top Ten Hotel Hot Water Beach and were so excited. We were staying in a little bungalow and it was so cute! It had a great porch for relaxing, amazing wake up view, and was only a ten minute walk from Hot Water Beach!

We relaxed for a few minutes and decided it was time for some lunch and exploring. The hotel recommended Hot Waves Café which was hidden in the woods. It was a cute café and we were expecting pretty average food but, boy, were we wrong! I got a lamb burger with capsicum salad and tzatziki and it was probably one of the best burgers of my life! It also had yummy potato cakes. Ryan actually got a sweet potato cake dish with bacon and, again, it was scrumptious!

We filled up quick and decided to walk to Hot Water beach. The beach is named for its underground volcanic streams that empty out into the ocean. You can dig a hole in the beach to access the stream water and create a sand hot tub! You are supposed to dig around low tide for easier access to the steaming water and, though low tide started at 4, people were already digging around 2! Their holes were at least 5 feet deep and we were a little put off by the effort of digging that far down!

We headed back to the hotel, changed into our swim suits, rented a shovel from the hotel, and walked back to the beach and it was even more packed! We decided to start digging a bit over from the crowds. Even though our dig site was the same level as the others with steam coming out of them, our water was not hot! You could be just a few inches away from the stream output and the water temperature was 20-30 degrees different! Some of the water was so hot you could not even step in it! We found that the best strategy was to dig on the edge of the hot stream to get a mix of cool and hot water and make the perfect temp. There was another couple that asked if they could dig with us and we ended up hanging out in our pool and trying not to boil for about an hour. It was such a fun experience!

We ended up heading back to the hotel to change and get dinner around 5. At this point, we had been up for about 15 hours and it was wearing on us. The hotel had a “Fish & Chip” stand so we grabbed that for dinner. It was delicious but there were sooo many fries. Good thing I shoveled so much sand as a work out!

With the jet lag hitting us strong, we went back to the room and were fast asleep by 6:30 PM!

Continue this adventure to Waitomo, New Zealand…

Beach Vacation Packing List

Beach Vacation Packing List

Weather you are heading to the exotic beaches of Mexico, Australia, or Thailand, island hopping through the Virgin Islands or Hawaii, or just heading to the US coastline, beach packing is pretty standard across the board! The following packing list should help you get everything you need together for an amazing trip with no “I can’t believe I forgot ….” moments!

Clothing:

  • Swim suits: A few of them! Who wants to wear a wet bathing suit multiple days in a row? A few options, like strapless suits for your lazy days on the beach so you won’t get crazy tan lines and more sturdy suits that tie around the neck and wont fall off while you are snorkeling or going on excursions with more movement, will be your best bet. While my favorite swim wear comes from Everything But Water, Target and Aerie have reasonably priced options you can’t beat as well
  • Tank tops: Light, breathable tops to keep you cool but give you some sun coverage when you need it
  • Shorts: Make sure they will not chafe and are comfortable / easy on / off when wet. If your thighs rub together like mine (*sigh*), longer shorts, like those at Gap, can help prevent the rub when your sticky from the salt water
  • Easy on / off rompers or sun dresses: Perfect to wear to the beach or resort pool as a cover up and cute enough to go to a restaurant after
  • Athletic leggings / shorts and tops for excursions or workouts: Focus on light, breathable, sweat-wicking, and easy to clean clothes for your zip-line or adventurous tours
  • Formal wear: Don’t forget flowy dresses or a cute skirt / top combo for nice dinners and dancing. Heels might be a bit much for the casual beach scene, so wedges, chunky heels, or cute sandals might be the easier to pack, more practical option
  • A scarf or light jacket for those cool beach nights (and the plane ride to and from your destination)
  • Don’t forget your undies, socks, and bras!

Accessories:

  • Water bottle for excursions: I love Swell bottles. They are easy to travel with, keep drinks cold for hours and hours, and are super cute
  • Water proof camera (if not your phone with a water proof case)
  • Umbrella: For both sun and rain protection
  • Floppy sun hat and sunglasses: A MUST. Bring nice sunglasses for pool days and some cheaper, “it’s ok if I lose these” ones to go in the ocean / on excursions with
  • Day bag: Pack-able backpack for your sunscreen, poncho, water and snacks, towels, and anything else you may need on excursions
  • Sun screen: Make sure you apply often! Don’t forget an oil free version for your face to avoid breakouts
  • Waterproof phone carrying case: This will save your phone when you are on bumpy jet boats, in rain, and are surrounded by water
  • Hand sanitizer, lip balm with sun screen, water proof make up, lots of aloe just in case of sun burns, and bug spray
  • Reading material for the plane or by the pool

Shoes:

  • Comfortable walking sandals that can get wet and keep your feet secure from slipping around. My personal favorite are Chaco’s. While they might not be the cutest shoes, they are so comfortable for miles of walking and are easy to clean. Note, black shoes tend to soak up the heat when you are in the pool or at the beach so lighter shoes are better
  • Sandals for walking beach
  • Sneakers and / or water shoes for adventure tours or a mid-vacay workout (funny right?)
  • Wedges or comfy heels for any “nice” nights out

Hopefully this list will take some of the packing stress away and help you have the best time on your beach vacation!

On the beach in El Salvador

Playa Del Carmen – Day 4 & 5

Playa Del Carmen – Day 4 & 5

Today we finally got to sleep in! Getting out of bed was incredibly difficult with the super fluffy pillows, ridiculous amount of room to stretch, and cloud like covers, however, the siren call of our 10 AM massage somehow got us out! We had a quick and delicious breakfast at the buffet and headed over to the spa.


The Yhi Spa smelt amazing and instantly relaxed us. We changed into robes and went outside to the private jacuzzi area. I was all about the cold-water Jacuzzi, as it soothed my burnt back, and Ryan hung out in the hot tub. After 5-10 minutes, I tried out the sauna and the mint steam room – ahhhhhh so nice! Eventually, we were taken upstairs to the couple’s massage room. The spa was one of the nicest I have ever been too and it was one of the best massages of my life! The pressure was perfect, the only downside was it went way to quickly.

After the massage, we walked to the pool and hopped into the day bed we reserved with towels. We ordered some drinks and Ryan got a burger for lunch. After lounging for a while, we hopped in the pool and watched the very enthusiastic water aerobics teacher do his thing with about 30 people in the pool. It was funny and I couldn’t help but join in for 10 minutes. We made our way over to the pool bar to meet up with the group from Vermont that we talked to the day prior, grab a volleyball, and play water volleyball. After about an hour or so before we decided to get out of the sun and back into our cabana for a nap. It was heaven!

We had a 7:30 reservation at Bana – the hibachi / Asian fusion restaurant. I love all things sushi but Ryan never gets “full enough” from sushi dinners so we don’t go often. In this case, it was all you can eat, so we ended up ordering over half the menu; spicy edamame, rock shrimp, a pineapple crab roll, a tuna roll, tuna nigiri, sea weed salad, pork egg rolls, sea bass with sweet noodles, shrimp pad Thai, and two desserts.

We did not go hungry this trip!

We ended up going to the Blue Agave cocktail lounge after dinner for some strawberry margaritas and tequila tasting. That was delicious, and needless to say, I was in the mood to dance after those exotic drinks. There was a funky band playing at the outside bar on the adult’s side so we enjoyed and danced to their music the rest of the night.

Day 5 – The last day in Playa:

Last day in paradise! We woke up early so we could enjoy a quick breakfast and head to the beach. Being pretty burnt, we decided to snag some lounge chairs under an umbrella and relax for the last 2 hours of our stay. The water was a bit choppy and the wind was blowing, but it was so relaxing and warm. The beach in Playa is much narrower than that in Cancun and there are quite a few more reefs so you should be careful where you enter the ocean.

Ryan started to itch and we noticed he had red bumps on his hands and legs! They were pretty concerning so, after we finished on the beach, we quickly showered, changed, packed, and went to the front desk to check out and to ask for a medic. The medic came and said that his bumps were either a sun rash or reaction to the microorganisms in the seaweed. We had been using SPF 30 and apparently, if your sun screen is not potent enough, you can get sun poisoning, so we will be upping the SPF in future. The medic gave Ryan some Benadryl cream and that seemed to lessen the irritation and redness almost immediately! Thank goodness.

With a less itchy fiancé, we went to the Market restaurant for some Italian fare before grabbing a taxi and heading to the airport for our quick flight back to the Lone Star State.

Playa Del Carmen

Playa Del Carmen

The good thing about catching and early flight is that there is no traffic on the way to the airport. The bad thing about a 7:25 AM flight is that you have to wake up at 4:30 AM – yuck! Thankfully, the adrenaline brought on by our vacation to Playa Del Carmen got me out of bed, in the car, and to the airport with plenty of energy.

Getting through security was a breeze so early and the check-in people were about as awake as we were. We grabbed some breakfast from Starbucks and, after a short wait, hopped on a 50% full American Airlines flight to the Cancun airport. We had a whole row to ourselves and indulged in some movies during the 2.5-hour flight. Talk about an easy start!

Flying to Cancun Airport

We arrived in the Cancun airport right before 10AM and headed out to our shuttle. There is a horde of travel agents at the exit of the airport ready to sell you excursions to everywhere you can imagine. Word of advice, just keep walking straight to the exit and don’t let them take up your time for the pitch! If you can, try to pre-arrange your shuttle to your hotel before you go so all you have to do is hop in and be on your way. We used Happy Shuttle to get to our Playa Del Carmen all-inclusive. The shuttle was clean and private so we didn’t have to spend beach time dropping other people off. Additionally, it was only about $65. The cab ride back from our hotel was only $34 since it costs less upon departure, so I recommend only booking your shuttle to your resort in advance.

We arrived through the ornate gates of the Paradisus La Perla, a Melia brand resort, and were immediately greeted by “Bienvenidos”, a cold towel for our face and hands, and a beautiful spa-like entry way. We stayed at the ME Cancun two years ago, a sister property of the Paradisus, and loved our stay so much that we wanted to stay within the Melia properties again for this trip.

Check-in was a little tricky because our reservation was under “Jessica Jessica without my last name. No idea how that happened, but all of the staff referred to me as “Jessica Jessica” for the remainder of the trip! Check-in also came with a purple sparking champagne drink, and then we were introduced to Marcos, our concierge. He welcomed us, gave us a map tour of the hotel, and walked through the 14 different restaurant options so we could make reservations for the various options. It was all very exciting!

Paradisus La Perla

Marcos also pitched us a “special deal” that included a free massage and free dinner at the Paradisus premier restaurant, “Passion by Martín Berasategui”. We were hesitant at taking the 90-minute pitch to sell us a Melia Club membership, but the $330 worth of free goods and a 3 night’s stay at another Melia property made us inclined to do the pitch. We made a pact though that, no matter what they pitched, we were not going to sign-up.

After we finished up with Marcos, we went to The Grill; the lunch buffet restaurant on the adult’s side of the hotel. I love all-inclusive’s because you can order everything and anything you want with no repercussions outside of a very full belly! We got some margaritas (it was a bit hard to explain “skinny margs” to the waiter but we got it eventually!), calamari, focaccia flat bread with pears, pesto and chicken, stuffed fish, and salmon. All totally delicious!

Satisfied with our lunch, we decided to explore the hotel. We walked through the mangrove forest separating the hotel from the beach, saw bunches of iguanas sunning themselves along the way, and headed to the water front! While the beach was not as wide and long as that in Cancun, it was still beautiful and calling to us to go in! Unfortunately, our room was not ready and my sneakers / active wear was not conducive to salt water swimming. We walked down the beach, back into the resort, through the pool area, and back to check-in to see if our room was ready. We initially arrived at 11:30 AM so getting our room did not seem too unreasonable, but we had to wait another 45 minutes to 3 PM to finally get our keys. Sipping a margarita on a day bed looking at the ocean helped, but it was still a bit annoying!

Enjoying a margarita at The Grill at Paradisus La Perla, Playa Del Carmen

We were finally escorted to our room with our bags and, boy, were we impressed! Our room had a huge tub, a double rain shower, a nice sitting area, and a huge balcony that looked over the mangrove forest and into the ocean. Score! I did think that our room had a live fish tank too but to my chagrin, it was just a picture of one…

Anyways, we changed into our swimsuits and headed to the pool for some late afternoon rays. There were tons of people there drinking, laying out, and playing water volleyball. We laid in some beach chairs and drank cocktails while talking to some South Carolinians and Canadians next to us. One of the best things about these resorts is meeting other people.

Around 6 or so, we decided to get ready for our reservation at the Fuego restaurant; a modern Latin place with a flair for ceviche. The restaurant had fiery ambiance to it and the wait staff was very friendly. We started with some delicious tempura and ceviche, had a glorious quinoa and chicken salad, enjoyed flank steak and veal for the entrees, and finished with apple cream and creme brulee desserts. I must say; the meal was excellent but the dessert was a little subpar.

After dinner, we heard that there was a Michael Jackson show going on in the theater on the family side of the resort. With wine in hand, we sat and watched one of the most ridiculously entertaining and strange shows of our lives! The guy playing Michael Jackson was a great dancer and did a fantastic job lip syncing all the songs. In between his bits, there were 2 guys and a girl who slow-jammed thriller and totally butchered some of Jackson’s other songs but they were so into it one couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. There were even acrobats doing aerial and flexibility stunts similar to, but not quite the caliber of, Cirque Du Soleil. I must say, we went in not knowing what to expect, and were totally overjoyed with surprise of this ridiculous show!

After MJ, we grabbed another glass of wine at the open-air bar, and then headed back to the room for some shut-eye.

Phuket – Day 2

Phuket – Day 2

6:45 AM wake up for our sea-canoe adventure! While there was a hint of sunshine in the morning, the monsoons were not shy and we needed our rain jackets and umbrellas just to get to breakfast. The Slate‘s Tin Mine restaurant had, hands down, the fluffiest, light as a cloud pancakes I’ve ever eaten! The bacon was nice and crispy too and, I have to say, the breakfasts at So Sofitel and The Slate in Phuket have been the best I’ve experienced.

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After we had our fill at the buffet, we grabbed beach towels and hopped on our transport to the Royal Marina for our sea-canoe adventure! The drive was about 45-minutes and our driver was a traffic pro, maneuvering quickly through the crowded roads. We pulled up to this beautiful marina with luxury, magazine worthy condo’s and lots of speed boats. We had tea and coffee during our short wait before we were quickly ushered to our boat. There were about 30 people on our speed boat to James Bond Island but it was still pretty roomy. Speeding through the islands led to some amazing views…

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About 30 minutes later, we pulled up to an island to join the 6 other speed boats already docked. Even with all of the people and boats, the islands were beautiful. We climbed up and drown a rocky path to get to the main event, the James Bond Island view.

The beach facing James Bond was packed with people, but I have to admit, the oblong shaped island sticking out of the water was pretty cool.

The beach used for viewing James Bond was jammed packed with tourist shops and tourists walking around. They really try to get you coming and going on these pit stops – unfortunate since it ruins the experience a bit. If you do not like crowds and want more a of a serene experience, I would suggest finding private tours to other islands – James Bond was cool but I would opt for a less crowded experience next time.

After about 40 minutes on the island, we were transferred over to a floating fishing village. All 2,000 inhabitants live on buildings that hover over the water on concrete stilts. In theory, it was a neat place, but the experience was again tainted by tourism. We pulled up and there were large pavilions with the capacity to host hundreds of people for at lunch buffets. We thought we were eating with locals and seeing something organic to the area, but it was not so. After a less-than-average lunch of coconut fried chicken, noodles, and rice, we walked through the village corridors to the boat pick-up area and it started to downpour!

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Everyone was getting totally soaked and there was no end in sight to the torrential rain coming down. Ryan and I put on the rain jacket and poncho we had packed, and the guides gave ponchos to everyone else . It was actually pretty fun to run through the small alleyways, dodging the waterfalls coming down from the drainpipes. We hurried to our speedboat and climbed aboard, hoping the rain would subside before we at our next stop for sea-canoeing.

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Fortunately for us, the rain dissipated as soon as we go to the canoeing area! We docked next to a larger pontoon boat that stored the canoes. Each group of two people were put into a boat with a paddler, so Ryan and I hopped on a canoe together and were taken for a lovely ride through a lagoon area with caves all along the bottom of the giant rock mountains.

Our canoe guide took us into caves and, at certain points, the stalactites were so low we had to lay down in the boat as not to hit our heads on the rocks! Talk about a tight squeeze! We paddled into some beautiful cavernous areas with tons of greenery and open skylight tops. It was such an amazing experience and it made me nostalgic for the sea-kayaking we did in Alaska.

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The guide also pointed out various stalactites and stalagmites that looked like different animals and figures. It started to sprinkling again and our guide kept us close to the rocky over-hangs to keep us dry. Overall, we were out on the water for about 45 minutes trying to take in the beauty of the area.

We were filed back onto the pontoon for some fruit and beverages and then back onboard our boat to head to a beach for sand and sun. Yet again, the weather had different plans and, after about 15 minutes the sky turned black and it was pouring. We went under an awning for shelter and watched the wind play wave-bumper cars with 4 of the speed boats closely parked next to each other. The boats were tossing and turning in the waves and you could hear them crashing into one another. We definitely bonded with our fellow boat mates with all of the craziness of the weather throughout the day and laughed as we ran through the rain to hop back onto our boat once the waves calmed down.

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We looked like wet dogs getting off of the boat back onto the dock, in our jeep back to the hotel, and from the hotel lobby to our door. Boy did it feel good to get dry! I am so glad we packed our waterproof gear – it really came in handy. I also had a waterproof carrying case for my phone which saved its life multiple times throughout the trip from mud, rain, and other catastrophes. I highly recommend packing one just in case your adventures take a damp turn.

After washing up at the hotel, we decided to take a stroll along the beach and find some street food. There were tons of places outside of the hotel that were 1/3 of the price of the hotel restaurants, and we set off to find a restaurant that the bar tenders at our hotel told us all of the locals loved. After browsing through local shops, getting desert snacks at a convenience store, and walking to the end of the main street, we stumbled across our restaurant destination. For under $10 USD, we had some delicious pad thai, fried large noodles with pork, mango shakes, all with a waterfront view! Not too bad if you ask me.

We did a little more walking after dinner and then, exhausted from the day, we went to bed…. at 8:30 PM.